Is it worth it? French as a second-language

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I’ve been racking my brain for something insightful to share after my tour of non-Latin based language areas. Firstly, English is definitely the universal language in contemporary Europe. Only in St. Petersburg was it ever a question of whether, if need be, we would be able to communicate with the local inhabitants – and even there our one attempt was incredibly successful owing to our earnestness to be understood and our waiter’s smattering of English (proof that coffee is also universal – or, to make Veronica cringe, ubiquitous).

Oddly enough, most of the French speakers on the ship were not from France or Belgium, but from Quebec. Hearing their accents made me feel oddly at home after a week in France and the Netherlands. Now, a question you might be asking is: how useful is French as a second-language in the twenty-first century? It is only important for those of us in a bilingual province of Canada? Is Spanish of more social worth? I’ve been giving this a bit of thought.

French is a language of academic study in a way that Spanish is not. This is unfortunate – i am fully aware of the wonderful texts written in Spanish from Cervantes to Neruda and Garcia Marquez, but French literature has seriously trumped Spanish literature up to now for coverage in the English-speaking world. Perhaps this will change in the future, but for the moment, i find being able to read in French (and Italian) a skill i frequently draw on (and am asked to draw on by non-readers).

A second-language, any language, is of course essentially to learning all others. i am a very firm advocate of language instruction at the primary level (and think that the lack of English grammar in the school curriculum is deplorable – English is NOT simple; most people write poorly (myself included); and without a grasp of your own syntax you don’t have a hope in hell of understanding another). Why is French perhaps better than another Latin-based language as a second-language? Well, i point you to the Petit Prince and other treasure troves of literature which can easily encourage a child to love the new language (this ties in with my earlier point of course). Furthermore, English is more closely allied to French than any of the other Latin-based languages, so the vocabularly is a little easier to pick up (if anyone needs a brief history of the English language, look it up on wikipedia). Of course, the same could be said of German, but i don’t read German.

Now, i genuinely hope to acquire a high level of proficiency in at least one other European language before completing school and some understanding in another…so i can continue this line of thought in the future, but for now i deem myself lucky to have been born in one of the few places in the world where learning both English and French comes naturally and is common. When i think of the tears over French homework (particularly the imparfait vs. the passe compose – side rant: you STUPID teachers! It isn’t “intuitive” – there’s a rule!!! Grrr…), i wish i could have known just how blessed i would feel today.

Now, what sponsored this discussion? An article on the Francophonie and how it has little to do with actual French-speaking (sadly) that i was archiving yesterday. It is reproduced below should you be interested.

Lysiane Gagnon, “That ridiculous Francophonie,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Oct 9, 2006).

True, French has long ceased to be “the” international language. Still, it is a major language — the only one, apart from English, that is spoken as a second or third language on all continents.
This beautiful language deserves better than the absurd organization that pretends to represent French-speaking countries — the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie , which met last month for yet another “summit,” this time in Bucharest.
When it was set up in 1986, la Francophonie was supposed to be the French equivalent of the Commonwealth. It was a very good idea that quickly turned sour. While the Commonwealth groups countries that have a great deal in common (namely, the use of English and political institutions inherited from their past as colonies of Britain), la Francophonie is a mixed bag of countries, some of which are totalitarian regimes and most of which are not even really French-speaking.
Among the 68 members and observers are former French colonies such as Vietnam, where French is spoken only by elderly professionals, or countries such as Poland and Romania, where French ceased to be the lingua franca well before the First World War. Even in Romania, which has a Latin-based language, reporters covering the francophone summit heard much more English than French on the streets of Bucharest.
In the past few years, la Francophonie has taken an even weirder turn. The newest members include countries where French is a totally foreign language: Greece, Albania and Macedonia. Ghana, a former British colony, is an “associate” member, and Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, is an observer.
The candidacy of Thailand would have been accepted this year if it hadn’t been for the recent military coup. Sudan, another former British colony, whose official language is Arabic, would have been admitted if the massacres in Darfur hadn’t been going on.
There are many more incongruities. Why isn’t Algeria, where French remains widely used, a member of la Francophonie? Why are Egypt and Austria members? Why is Israel, a country where a quarter of the population are native French speakers (most come from France, Belgium and Morocco) excluded? The answers are easy to grasp. It’s politics, stupid. Algeria still nurtures a bone of contention with its former colonial master. And Israel’s entry is blocked by the Arab and Muslim countries, which form a large part of the group’s membership.
Over the years, Canada has earnestly tried to prevent la Francophonie from evolving into a club that has nothing to do with language. But France has the upper hand, since it is by far the major financial contributor to the organization (Canada is a distant second).
For the French, the ever-expanding Francophonie is an imitation of its lost empire. It has become a lucrative business instead of a cultural association: Third World countries knock on its door in hopes of benefiting from foreign aid, and rich countries benefit from privileged access to huge consumer markets and natural resources.
As a North-South forum, though, la Francophonie has its positive sides. The developed countries try to push for democratic reforms and human rights in the member states. It also can be argued that belonging to the club might encourage a non-francophone country to introduce French as a second or third language in the school curriculum.
In a difficult diplomatic context, Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a remarkable performance in Bucharest. Speaking in French practically all the time, he was an active player at the summit, and almost single-handedly, with the help of the Swiss, blocked a resolution that recognized only Lebanese suffering in the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. His sensible and fair stand led to a last-minute compromise that recognized the suffering of “all civilian populations.”
But back to la Francophonie’s agenda: In a welcome change, the group’s next meeting, scheduled for 2008 in Quebec City, will be held in a French-speaking city.

© Copyright 2006 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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